Juan Ponce de León (commonly known as Ponce de León) was famous for searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Finding it was supposedly the driving motivation force behind the quests of Ponce de León––but the reality is, he almost certainly had nothing to do with it. Most historians today agree that the Fountain of Youth element of Ponce de León’s famous journey to Florida was added to his biography later by writers for various political reasons, and because it was just a darn good story.
The fact is, Ponce de León deserves to be known for his many real and significant accomplishments, and for being among the first explorers of the New World in service of his country, Spain.
Ponce de León proved himself to be a brave and intrepid explorer, an extremely able governor and administrator. He was also a remarkably perceptive businessperson. He was the first governor of Puerto Rico. However, it must be noted that Ponce de León was a man of his times. That is, he was driven by greed for gold, slaves, and land. He did not flinch from brutality and cruelty when he needed to sweep the native peoples of the New World out of his way. Those he did not kill, he enslaved.
Juan Ponce de León was most likely born in 1474 in Spain, although some records place his birth in the year 1460. Unlike many of the other early conquistadors, de León was born into a well-connected, well-to-do family of nobility. Some of his contemporaries, such as Hernando de Soto and Francisco Pizarro, the men who conquered the Inca, had been born poor, uneducated, and without connections. These later explorers were desperate to leverage the discoveries of the New World to win their way out of poverty and gain higher status in society. But de León was already well off. He had a genuine urge to explore and accomplish great things.
Voyage with Christopher Columbus
Perhaps few people know that Ponce de León was actually a member of Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493. His status aboard ship was listed as a “gentlemen volunteer.” It is known that this was the journey on which de León first set foot upon Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, the islands that would play an enormous role in his future.
Ponce de León almost certainly returned to Spain after his voyage with Columbus in 1493. It is believed he returned next to Puerto Rico in 1502 with a man by the name of Nicolás de Ovando, who had been appointed governor of “The Indies” which included several islands in that region. Part of his mission was to bring order to a badly deteriorating situation that had been developing on the islands under the deplorably incompetent management of Christopher Columbus. On the island of Hispaniola (which today is split between the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), there had been a native rebellion against their rapacious and cruel taskmasters, the Spanish conquistadors.
Ponce de León was given the assignment to crush the native rebellion on Hispaniola and restore order. De León not only accomplished this, but he proved extremely capable of turning the chaos of the New World wilderness into a profitable enterprise. His expert handling of the situation on Hispaniola won him great favor from his superior, de Ovando, and high marks from high government officials back in Spain.
De León was appointed governor of a significant portion of Hispaniola. He used the conquered natives, the Taínos, both as slaves in farm fields and as labor in gold mining operations. In this time, Ponce de León also found love. He married the daughter of an innkeeper, and they had three daughters and one son. He built a huge stone house, and lived the good life in a tropical environment where he was a powerful feudal lord.
From his holdings in Hispaniola, Ponce de León next set his sights on the nearby island of what is today Puerto Rico. The Indians had told him tales of rich lands and plentiful gold there. De León led an expedition to the island and found that the Taínos had been telling the truth. Again, de León worked his administrative magic on the land and created another agricultural and gold mining operation of great success. Here he built yet another comfortable stone mansion. After several years in Puerto Rico, de León returned to Hispaniola.
It was in 1509 that the politics of the Spanish monarchy created trouble for de León. This would eventually force him out of the islands of the Indies where he had done so well and prospered. The trouble came in the form of one Diego Colón, who was none other than the son of Christopher Columbus. As the son of Columbus, Colón had been granted the right to inherit many of the charters that his father had been granted by the Spanish Crown. In short, Diego Colón was named Viceroy of the Indies, meaning he had total power over all, including de León, and also rights to the holdings the latter had worked so hard to develop.
This was part of the motivation for Ponce de León to set sail once again to seek further lands and discoveries, and what prompted his journey to Florida, the land he is credited with naming. Florida means “The Flowery Land.” De León landed in the Easter season when many colorful flowers are in full bloom in that part of the world. He made some initial exploration of Florida (spending no time searching for the Fountain of Youth) and returned to Puerto Rico eight months later. The year was 1514.
His next return to Florida was seven years later in 1521, and this would prove to have fatal consequences. De León had come back to Florida, this time to stay. With him were 200 well-supplied men and 50 horses, all ready to dig in and form a new, thriving colony. However, early on the party was attacked warriors of a local tribe known as the Calusa. Ponce de León was struck with a poison-tipped arrow. He became so ill he decided to sail back to Puerto Rico, but he died shortly after arriving from his poisonous wound. One might see a measure of poetic justice in that Juan Ponce de León died at the hands of the Native Americans, the people he have killed, brutalized and enslaved during his exploits to gain fame and personal wealth in the New World.